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Byron Public Schools attempts third referendum in less than two years

The referendum will appear before voters in the form of two questions, which, if both are approved, would amount to $44.5 million. That total is less than the first request in 2020, but more than the most recent version in May.

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Alisha Eiken, left, and Nicki Nicholas wave signs supporting the Byron referendum Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (Jordan Shearer / jshearer@postbulletin.com)
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For the third time in less than two years, Byron Public Schools is asking voters to approve a referendum to fund improvements around the district, which advocates say are necessary for the growing school community to thrive.

The school board approved the decision during a special meeting Aug. 2.

Voters will head to the ballot in November, six months after the most recent failed referendum in May. The first attempt was a year before that, in May 2020.

RELATED: Byron committee aims to put another referendum before voters in November

"Even though the last two didn't pass, it doesn't diminish the needs that we still have," said Superintendent Mike Neubeck. "The further out we go, the harder it's going to be to repair, and the tougher it's going to be on our students. So, we really felt we needed to do it now."

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Like the most recent version, the upcoming referendum will be presented to voters in the form of two questions. The first will ask voters to approve up to $23 million for needs such as additional classroom space, updates and repairs. The second question, which will be contingent on the first, will ask for up to $21.5 million for additional amenities, such as an auditorium and upgrades to the athletic fields.

The total from the two questions amounts to $44,555,000, less than the first referendum proposed in 2020, but more than the most recent version. In 2020, voters were asked to support a $58 million request. In May 2021, voters were asked to support a $41 million request.

Currently, the Zumbro Education District leases some space from Byron Public Schools. However, ZED is building a facility of its own in Kasson, and Byron Public Schools plans to repurpose the space it will regain. According to Neubeck, that's the reason this upcoming referendum will be slightly more expensive than the most recent version.

Byron is a growing community. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, its population in 2010 was 4,914 and 5,639 in 2019, an increase of more than 14%. The school district is also growing. According to a report from the district, the student population grew by 486 students from 2010 to 2020. The same report estimates the student population will grow by nearly the same amount by 2030.

During the last referendum, voters had varying opinions about the district's needs. In May, voters rejected the first question by a margin of 60 votes. They rejected the second question more decisively, with a difference of 308 votes between those in favor and those against.

School Board Chairman Harvey Bergh declined to comment on the upcoming referendum, saying all communication would go through the superintendent. A representative for the parent-teacher organization could not be reached for comment.

Getting the referendum to pass will be one of the earliest major challenges for Neubeck, who began his position with the district in July. The district's former superintendent, Joey Page, accepted the role of superintendent in Austin.

The district has a rationale for the quick turnaround between the second and third referendum requests. According to Neubeck, state law would not allow them to host a referendum request in May 2022. They could have pushed the request further down the road, but the district doesn't want to lose time on the issue.

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"Once we get that information out about what we need and why we're going back so soon, I think people will really understand," he said. "I'm hoping it's the last time."

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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